Two Kinds, Part One
My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.
«Of course you can be prodigy, too» my mother told me when I was nine. «You can be best anything. »
America was where all my mother's hopes lay. She had come here in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. There were so many ways for things to get better.
We didn't immediately pick the right kind of prodigy. At first my mother thought I could be a Chinese Shirley Temple. We'd watch Shirley's old movies on TV as though they were training films. My mother would poke my arm and say, «Ni kan» - You watch. And I would see Shirley tapping her feet, or singing a sailor song, or pursing her lips into a very round 0 while saying, «Oh my goodness.»
«Ni kan,» said my mother as Shirley's eyes flooded with tears. «You already know how. Don't need talent for crying!»
Every night after dinner, my mother and I would sit at the Formica kitchen table. She would present new tests, taking her examples from stories of amazing children she had read in Ripley's Believe It or Not, or Good Housekeeping, Reader's Digest, and a dozen other magazines she kept in a pile in our bathroom. My mother got these magazines from people whose houses she cleaned. And since she cleaned many houses each week, we had a great assortment. She would look through them all, searching for stories about remarkable children.
The first night she brought out a story about a three-year-old boy who knew the capitals of all the states and even most of the European countries. A teacher was quoted as saying the little boy could also pronounce the names of the foreign cities correctly.
«What's the capital of Finland?» my mother asked me, looking at the magazine story.
All I knew was the capital of California, because Sacramento was the name of the street we lived on in Chinatown. «Nairobi! » I guessed, saying the most foreign word I could think of. She checked to see if that could possibly be one way to pronounce «Helsinki» before showing me the answer.
The tests got harder – multiplying numbers in my head, finding the queen of hearts in a deck of cards, trying to stand on my head without using my hands, predicting the daily temperatures in Los Angeles, New York, and London.
One night I had to look at a page from the Bible for three minutes and then remember everything I could remember: Now Jehoshaphat had riches and honor in abundance and ... that's all I remember, Ma,» I said.
And after seeing my mother's disappointed face once again, something inside of me began to die. I hated the tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations. Before going to bed that night, I looked in the mirror above the bathroom sink and when I saw only my face staring back - and that it would always be this ordinary face - I began to cry. Such a sad, ugly girl! I made high-pitched noises like a crazed animal, trying to scratch out the face in the mirror.
And then I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me - because I had never seen that face before. I looked at my reflection, blinking so I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. This girl and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of wont's. I won't let her change me, I promised myself.
I won't be what I'm not.
So now on nights when my mother presented her tests, I performed listlessly, my head propped on one arm. I pretended to be bored. And I was. I got so bored I started counting the bellows of the foghorns out on the bay while my mother drilled me in other areas.
And the next day, I played a game with myself, seeing if my mother would give up on me before eight bellows. After a while I usually counted only one, maybe two bellows at most.
At last she was beginning to give up hope.
Two or three months had gone by without any mention of my being a prodigy again. And then one day my mother was watching The Ed Sullivan Show on TV.
She seemed entranced by the music, a little frenzied piano piece with this mesmerizing quality, sort of quick passages and then teasing lilting ones before it returned to the quick playful parts.
«Ni kan,» my mother said, calling me over with hurried hand gestures, «Look here.» I could see why my mother was fascinated by the music. It was being pounded out by a little Chinese girl, about nine years old, with a Peter Pan haircut. The girl had the sauciness of a Shirley Temple. She was proudly modest like a proper Chinese child. And she also did this fancy sweep of a curtsy, so that the fluffy skirt of her white dress cascaded slowly to the floor like the petals of a large carnation.
In spite of these warning signs, I wasn't worried. Our family had no piano and we couldn't afford to buy one, let alone reams of sheet music and piano lessons. So I could be generous in my comments when my mother bad-mouthed the little girl on TV.
«Play note right, but doesn't sound good! No singing sound, » complained my mother. «What are you picking on her for? » I said carelessly. «She's pretty good. Maybe she's not the best, but she's trying hard. » I knew almost immediately I would be sorry I said that. «Just like you, » she said. «Nor the best. Because you not trying. » She gave a little huff as she let go of the sound dial and sat down on the sofa.
Three days after watching the Ed Sullivan Show, my mother told me what my schedule would be for piano lessons and piano practice. She had talked to Mr Chong, who lived on the first floor of our apartment building. Mr Chong was a retired piano teacher and my mother had traded house-cleaning services for weekly lessons and a piano for me to practice on every day, two hours a day, from four until six.
When my mother told me this, I felt as though I had been sent to hell. I whined and then kicked my foot a little when I couldn't stand it anymore.
«Why don't you like me the way I am? I'm not a genius! I can't play the piano. And even if I could, I wouldn't go on TV if you paid me a million dollars! » I cried.
My mother slapped me. «Who ask you be genius?» she shouted. «Only ask you be your best. For your sake. You think I want you be genius? Hnnh! What for! Who ask you! »
«So ungrateful, » I heard her mutter in Chinese. «If she had as much talent as she has temper, she would be famous now. »
I soon found out why old Chong had retired from teaching piano. He was deaf. «Like Beethoven!» he shouted to me. «We're both listening only in our head! » And he would start to conduct his frantic silent sonatas.
Our lessons went like this. He would open the book and point to different things, explaining their purpose: «Key! Treble! Bass! No sharps or flats! So this is C major! Listen now and play after me! »
And then he would play the C scale a few times, a simple chord, and then, as if inspired by an old, unreachable itch, he gradually added more notes and running trills and a pounding bass until the music was really something quite grand.
I would play after him, the simple scale, the simple chord, and then I just played some nonsense that sounded like a cat running up and down on top of garbage cans. Old Chong smiled and applauded and then said, «Very good! But now you must learn to keep time! »
So that's how I discovered that Old Chong's eyes were too slow to keep up with the wrong notes I was playing, and that was how I also learned I could be lazy and get away with mistakes, lots of mistakes. If I hit the wrong notes because I hadn't practiced enough, I never corrected myself. I just kept playing in rhythm. And Old Chong kept conducting his own private reverie.
So maybe I never really gave myself a fair chance. I did pick up the basics pretty quickly, and I might have become a good pianist at that young age. But I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different that I learned to play only the most ear-splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns.
And then one day I heard my mother and her friend Lindo Jong both talking in a loud bragging tone of voice so others could hear. It was after church, and I was leaning against the brick wall wearing a dress with stiff white petticoats. Auntie Lindo's daughter, Waverly, who was about my age, was standing farther down the wall about five feet away. We had grown up together and shared all the closeness of two sisters squabbling over crayons and dolls. In other words, for the most part, we hated each other. I thought she was snotty. Waverly long had gained a certain amount of fame as «Chinatown's Littlest Chinese Chess Champion.»
«She bring home too many trophy, » lamented Auntie Lindo that Sunday. «All day she play chess. All day I have no time do nothing but dust off her winnings.» She threw a scolding look at Waverly, who pretended not to see her.
«You lucky you don't have this problem, » said Auntie Lindo with a sigh to my mother. And my mother squared her shoulders and bragged: «Our problem worser than yours. If we ask Jing-Mei wash dish, she hear nothing but music. It's like you can't stop this natural talent. »
And right then, I was determined to put a stop to her foolish pride. A few weeks later, Old Chong and my mother conspired to have me play in a talent show which would be held in the church hall. By then, my parents had saved up enough to buy me a secondhand piano, a black Wurlitzer spinet with a scarred bench. It was the showpiece of our living room.